The Letter From Europe column from the June 1980 issue of the Socialist Standard
In March last year one of the French trade union confederations, the CFDT, organised a forum of European trade union leaders in Paris to launch its campaign for a "general reduction of the working week to 35 hours in order to create jobs". Albert Mercier, one of its national Secretaries, was reported as saying that "work-sharing through a reduction in working time was clearly one of the keys to solving the current employment problems" (European Communities Trade Union Information, No. 3/1979).
The reasoning behind this proposal — which is popular among trade unionists in countries besides France —is that if the hours of work available were shared more evenly, instead of some people being unemployed while others work long hours then everybody would benefit: the unemployed would find a job while the employed would have more free time.
But this is to assume that capitalism is a system that has the aim of providing people with an income from work, whereas in fact its sole aim is making profits. And it is precisely because capitalism is going through a period of reduced profitability that unemployment is now so high. When, as now, firms cannot sell profitably as many of their products as before then they cut back production —and so the number of workers they employ. Some firms have been so badly hit by the crisis that they have simply closed down or gone bankrupt, once again throwing workers onto the streets. This is all quite normal under capitalism since it is the only way in which it is able to function.
But unemployment not only rises and falls as the capitalist industrial cycle goes through its normal phases of crisis, slump, recovery, boom, crisis, slump, recovery and so on. There is also a permanent pool of unemployed, even in times of boom. This is because, without such a pool, the workers' bargaining position would improve to such an extent that the wage increases they could then extract from their employers would eat too much into profit margins. When the pool of unemployed workers in a particular country falls too low — as it did in Britain in the 1950s — then the employers resort to importing surplus labour power from abroad, from the mass of unemployed who are vegetating in the undeveloped parts of the world. It is this that explains the presence in France of so many North Africans, in Germany of so many Turks and in Britain of so many West Indians and people from the Indian subcontinent.
So capitalism needs a certain level of unemployment in order to function as the profit-making system it is. Unemployment is thus inevitable under capitalism and nothing can be done by governments or trade unions to prevent it. In the course of time, as the current slump gives way first to a recovery and then to a boom (as sooner or later it will), the present high level of unemployment will fall. But this will not be due to any government intervention or trade union action. It will be because profit levels have been restored as a result of the conditions created by the slump itself; in other words, once again, because economic laws of capitalism are functioning in their normal way.
A shorter working week will therefore not in any way lessen unemployment—if anything, from a strictly economic point of view it is more likely to have the opposite effect since, to the extent that it increases labour costs, it will encourage employers to introduce labour-saving machinery. This is not to say that workers should not be struggling, through their trade unions, for a shorter working week. It is simply that the case for shorter hours does not rest on the possible effects, either way, on employment.
The struggle for a shorter working week is a part of the trade union struggle to ensure that workers are paid the full value of their labour power (not the same thing, of course, as the full value of what they produce). The value of a worker's labour power is determined, like the value of all other commodities, by the amount of socially necessary labour required to produce and reproduce it: by the food, clothing housing and so on that workers must consume in order to maintain themselves in a fit state to work at their particular job.
Under capitalism workers are subject as Marx put it, to the "never-ceasing encroachments of capital". One of these downward pressures exerted by employers is precisely to try to make workers work more intensely —through .speed-up, new machinery, time-and-motion and other measures aimed at increasing "efficiency". But, as we have just seen, unless this increased intensity of labour is compensated, either by a wage increase or by shorter hours or both, then it is the equivalent of paying workers less than the value of their labour power. Marx in fact noted:
". . . the immoderate lengthening of the working day produced by machinery in the hands of capital leads later on to a reaction on the part of the society, which is threatened in the very sources of its life; and, from there, to a normal working day whose length is fixed by law. On the foundation laid by the latter, something we have already met with, namely the intensification of labour, develops into a phenomenon of decisive importance" (Capital, Pelican edition, p. 533).
He based this observation on the experience of the Ten Hours Act of 1847, as amended in 1850, which introduced a 60-hour week (5 days of 10½ hours and 7½ on Saturday!). The capitalists had bitterly opposed this Act and predicted that it would ruin industry. In fact, however, this did not happen. As Marx explained, the capitalists compensated for the shorter hours by making their workers work harder:
"Capital's tendency, as soon as a prolongation of the hours of labour is once for all forbidden, is to compensate for this by systematically raising the intensity of labour, and converting every improvement in machinery into a more perfect means for soaking up labour-power (p. 542).
Marx then commented:
"There cannot be the slightest doubt that this process must soon lead once again to a critical point at which a further reduction in the hours of labour will be inevitable."
In other words, as with trade union action generally, the workers have here to run fast just to stand still. The first effective reduction in working hours in 1850 was followed by an intensification of labour; this led to the workers demanding and eventually obtaining a further reduction in hours, followed by a further intensification, a further reduction . . . until today most people have a normal working week of between 35 hours (in some offices in Britain) and 40 hours (the legal basic working week in France).
The trade unions are right to demand shorter hours, but are wrong in suggesting that this is a way of reducing unemployment. They are, in other words, right but for the wrong reason. From a trade union viewpoint this is not all that serious since what counts is the result (shorter hours so as to ensure that workers continue to be paid wages equal to the value of their labour power). But from a socialist viewpoint, it is important to be theoretically sound. To suggest that shorter hours could reduce unemployment is to encourage reformist illusions; is to sustain workers in their mistaken belief that capitalism can somehow be made to work in their interest, whereas just to ensure that they are paid the value of what they have to sell — just to try to maintain their living standards — workers have to keep on running fast.
But this defensive struggle, though necessary, should not be all that workers do. To adapt a phrase, instead of the conservative, defensive slogan of "a normal working day for a normal day's work", they ought to raise the revolutionary slogan of "the abolition of the wages system". Once the wages system has been abolished through the conversion of the means of production into the common property of society, then the "never-ceasing encroachments of capital" will cease and free men and women of socialist society will organise the necessary work of wealth-production to suit their convenience.